It will soon be 17 years since 9/11. The United States remains locked in a war of attrition in Afghanistan, and it is far from clear it can win there, supporting a deeply divided, corrupt and ineffective government where there are few clear indications that coming Afghan elections will change the situation. So far, American airpower and a strengthened train and assist mission have kept Afghan forces in control of key population centers with minimal American casualties. However, Afghan military and civilian casualties have been high, some population centers are threatened, and recent United States government reporting indicates a growing level of Taliban and extremist control over the countryside.
The United States has not abandoned every effort on the civil side of the war, but has reduced its role to largely token efforts to push reform by making aid conditional. It is not clear that such efforts are working, that the Afghan police is effective, or that the government is becoming less corrupt. While aid and reform efforts to seem to have stabilized the international aspects of the Afghan economy, the World Bank has reported steadily rising poverty levels since 2008, as population movements have jammed Afghan cities where there is minimal job security, and little is done to win over hearts and minds.
To the extent there is any United States strategy, it seems to lie in the hope that peace negotiations will begin with the Taliban, that the Taliban is exhausted enough to make concessions, and the United States will then be able to leave with something close to victory. No one seems to want to remember how such a seeming “victory” played out in Vietnam, or how peace talks ended in giving political victory to elements of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and to the Maoists in Nepal.
Given these conditions, Russia and China have little incentive to support the United States. Russia may be determined to put pressure on the United States wherever it can. At the same time, one needs to be careful about assuming that either Russia or China is seeking to sabotage American efforts in Afghanistan, rather than react to the growing possibility that the United States will win every battle, lose the war, and leave out of eventual frustration and exhaustion. The question General David Petraeus asked about Iraq in 2003 has become steadily less relevant to the war in Afghanistan with every year of fighting. How does this end? The right questions for the war in Afghanistan are does this war ever end? And how long will the United States stay?
For Russia, a deal with a Taliban that is focused on ruling Afghanistan, rather than exporting extremism, offers potential guarantees against American withdrawal and an Afghan government defeat. Afghanistan has almost no strategic value to Russia today, and any arrangement that helps secure Russian interests in Central Asia is better than having to deal more actively with an ongoing war of attrition led by the United States or having to cope more actively with American withdrawal. Putting some indirect pressure on the United States by supporting the Taliban may make the option sweeter, but it is not the ultimate goal for Russia.
Anyone who discusses Afghanistan with Chinese officials becomes equally aware that China wants to keep its role to a minimum, at least until Afghanistan becomes stable enough to serve as a source of resources. One investment in a useless copper mine is enough. Just as Russia has no real interest in Afghanistan as a route to the Indian Ocean, China has no serious interest in Afghanistan as a new “Silk Road.” The Chinese “Belt and Road” plans include Pakistan, Russia, and the sea. They do no include getting dragged into security problems in the middle of nowhere.
China does seem to have some role in a training facility or small base in the Wakhan corridor, which is the narrow strip of mountains and barren land that extends some 350 kilometers from the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan to the Chinese Muslim region in Xinjiang. This, however, seems far more a matter of creating a buffer to counter Uyghur and Tajik Islamic extremism in Western China and Central Asia than any Chinese concern over the future of Afghanistan. Like Russia, China may gain from the present U.S. commitment to Afghanistan both in terms of security and the strain it puts on military efforts, but this is scarcely a main goal.
To put it bluntly, the United States now has no regional friends on the borders of Afghanistan, and few common interests with Russia or China. The only good news for the United States is that the Russian and Chinese roles in Afghanistan are much more driven by self-interest than hostility.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has served as a policy adviser to the Department of Defense and the Department of State.